A review of rules in Jackson County that guide development along the roughly five-mile stretch of U.S. 441 leading into the Cherokee Indian Reservation is steaming along but possible changes can’t come fast enough for some business owners and residents.
A petition with just fewer than 200 names protesting the current land-use ordinance landed in county commissioners’ laps this month.
David Brooks, a general contractor in the area and one of those who believes the regulations are stifling potential work opportunities, gathered the names contained in the petition. Brooks said this week that doing so was easy — he just drove along the corridor, told people what he was doing and had just one individual opt not to sign her name.
“I started at one end and came to the other,” Brooks said. “The people want it lifted.”
The petition calls on the Jackson County Board of Commissioners “to immediately repeal” the U.S. 441 corridor ordinance adopted in August 2009.
That’s unlikely to happen, however, County Manager Chuck Wooten said.
A task force was appointed last fall to review the development guidelines. It will recommend any changes to planning board, which in turn will recommend changes to county commissioners. The task force has not finished with its review, let alone kicked suggestions up to the planning board yet.
“We are at the very beginning of the review process,” Wooten said.
The development regulations were intended to prevent unsightly or out-of-character sprawl. The current regulations don’t particularly limit where development can occur along the strip of highway leading to Cherokee. It instead lays out aesthetic standards, such as architecture and landscaping, to ensure any development that does occur will be attractive. It also limits billboards and overly large signs, which was a source of contention when it passed.
But property owners believe their options are being limited.
“We believe that the ordinance was adopted with little input from the affected property owners, and that the ordinance causes undue hardship on property owners with the district,” the petition states. “The appearance standards, landscaping rules, and five-acre minimum lot sizes place a burden on property owners and serves to reduce property values for the citizens in this part of Jackson County.”
The Gateway land-use plan was a landmark event when passed five years ago. It marked one of the first attempts by a county west of Buncombe to undertake what is essentially spot zoning.
Commissioner Joe Cowan, who served on the board when the ordinance passed, defended the rules recently as having been developed by people who lived in that community. The Whittier/Gateway community in a series of hearings developed a long-range vision and plan for this critical stretch of four-lane highway.
But, Brooks said in response, “a lot of people think the decision was made before they ever had those public meetings.”
County Planner Gerald Green last fall initiated a planning board based review of the rules. A task force of people who live and work in the corridor are involved in the examination. Green said he believes the group will have recommendations ready for the planning board this spring. Revised regulations likely will make their way for commissioner consideration in the summer.
“We’re moving forward,” Green said, adding that he does not believe goals of protecting the corridor’s character and allowing development are exclusive ones.
Currently, some older motels, a consignment shop, service stations and a few businesses dot the corridor. A couple of art galleries and craft shops are at the nicer end of the spectrum. Businesses catering to tourists are few and far between, but many see the corridor, which has water and sewer, as primed for growth.
Green explained in a previous interview that he believes stipulating “nodes” of concentrated development might actually work better instead of allowing growth to sprawl along the entire strip. Sprawl actually could under-gird, not weaken, another goal of the original plan — traffic management.
Monday, Green said the U.S. 441 subcommittee has indeed identified some potential “nodes.”
Also being reviewed were:
• The section of the rules now in place that dictate any new parking lots go behind buildings, not in front. Green also was concerned that the ordinance failed to stipulate that developers couldn’t just “flip” their new businesses around, with the parking lot facing the highway anyway.
• The possibility of being able to get to several shops from a single access road instead of having a long smear of strip development along the entire corridor. Green has said that discourages pedestrian movement between shops, he added.
“It was designed for flat lands, not the mountains,” Brooks said of the ordinance.
In May, Jackson County residents will vote on whether to allow the sale of alcoholic beverages countywide. In April, Cherokee residents will vote on whether to allow the sale of alcoholic beverages reservation-wide. A “yes” by both or either of those communities is likely to trigger some development along U.S. 441.
“Growth will come, sooner or later, and I do think we need some regulations,” Brooks said, adding that he believes the ones now in place, however, are too restrictive.